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easily doubled in width. Often the crust cracked to an unknown distance,
easing from the frost, which the boys accepted as the forerunner of
thawing weather.

"We'll put out poison to-night," said Dell. "It will hardly freeze a
shoal, and I've found one below the corral."

"I'm just as anxious as you to put out the bait," replied Joel, "but we
must take no chances of making our work sure. The moment the cattle quit
drinking, the water holes freeze over. This is regular old
Billy Winter."

"I'll show you the ripple and leave it to you," argued the younger boy.
"Under this crust of sleet and snow, running water won't freeze."

"Along about sunset we can tell more about the weather for to-night,"
said Joel, with a finality which disposed of the matter for the present.

On reaching the corral, the older boy was delighted with the splendid
trail broken out, but Dell rode in search of a known shallow in the
creek. An old wood road crossed on the pebbly shoal, and forcing his
horse to feel his way through the softened crust, a riplet was unearthed
as it purled from under an earthen bank.

"Here's your running water," shouted Dell, dropping the reins and
allowing Dog-toe to drink. "Here you are - come and see for yourself."

Joel was delighted with Dell's discovery. In fact, the water, after
emerging from under a concave bank, within a few feet passed under
another arch, its motion preventing freezing.

"Don't dismount," said Joel, emphasizing caution, "but let the horses
break a narrow trail across the water. This is perfect. We'll build
another fire to-night, and lay a half dozen baits around this
open water."

The pelt of the dead wolf was taken, when the boys cantered in home.
Time was barely allowed to bolt a meal, when the loading of the wooden
troughs was begun. Every caution urged was observed; the basins were
handled with a hay fork, sledded to the scene, and dropped from
horseback, untouched by a human hand. To make sure that the poison would
be found, a rope was noosed to the carcass and a scented trace was made
from every quarter, converging at the open water and tempting baits.

"There," said Dell, on completing the spoor, "if that doesn't get a
wolf, then our work wasn't cunningly done."

"Now, don't forget to throw that carcass back on the ledge, under the
comb," added Joel. "Wolves have a reputation of licking each other's
bones, and we must deny them everything eatable except poisoned suet."

The herd would not return of its own accord, and must be brought in to
the corral. As the boys neared the divide and came in sight of the
cattle, they presented a state of alarm. The presence of wolves was at
once suspected, and dashing up at a free gallop, the lads arrived in
time to save the life of a young steer. The animal had grazed beyond the
limits of the herd, unconscious of the presence of a lurking band of
wolves, until attacked by the hungry pack. Nothing but the energetic use
of his horns saved his life, as he dared not run for fear of being
dragged down, and could only stand and fight.

The first glimpse of the situation brought the boys to the steer's
rescue. Shaking out their horses, with a shout and clatter of hoofs,
they bore down on the struggle, when the wolves suddenly forsook their
victim and slunk away. The band numbered eight by easy count, as they
halted within two hundred yards and lay down, lolling their tongues as
if they expected to return and renew the attack.

"Did you ever hear of anything like this?" exclaimed Dell, as the
brothers reined in their horses to a halt. "Attacking in broad
daylight!"

"They're starving," replied Joel. "This sleet makes it impossible to get
food elsewhere. One of us must stay with the cattle hereafter."

"Well, we saved a steer and got a wolf to-day," boastfully said Dell.
"That's not a bad beginning."

"Yes, but it's the end I dread. If this weather lasts a month longer,
some of these cattle will feed the wolves."

There was prophecy in Joel's remark. The rescued animal was turned into
the herd and the cattle started homeward. At a distance, the wolves
followed, peeping over the divide as the herd turned down the pathway
leading to the corral. Fuel had been sledded up, and after attending to
the details of water and fire, the boys hurried home.

The weather was a constant topic. It became the first concern of the
morning and the last observation of the night. The slightest change was
noticeable and its portent dreaded. Following the blizzard, every
moderation of the temperature brought more snow or sleet. Unless a
general thaw came to the relief of the cattle, any change in the weather
was undesirable.

A sleepless night followed. It was later than usual when the boys
replenished the fire and left the corral. Dell's imagination covered the
limits of all possibilities. He counted the victims of the poison for
the night, estimated the number of wolves tributary to the Beaver,
counted his bales of peltry, and awoke with a start. Day was breaking,
the horses were already fed, and he was impatient for saddles and away.

"How many do you say?" insisted Dell, as they left the stable.

"One," answered Joel.

"Oh, we surely got seven out of those eight."

"There were only six baits. You had better scale down your estimate.
Leave a few for luck."

Nothing but the cold facts could shake Dell's count of the chickens.
Joel intentionally delayed the start, loitering between house and
corral, and when no longer able to restrain his impulsive brother,
together they reached the scene. Dell's heart failed him - not a dead
wolf lay in sight. Every bait had been disturbed. Some of the troughs
had been gnawed to splinters, every trace of the poisoned suet had been
licked out of the auger holes, while the snow was littered with
wolf tracks.

"Our cunning must be at fault," remarked Joel, as he surveyed the scene
and empty basins.

Dell looked beaten. "My idea is that we had too few baits for the number
of visitors. See the fur, where they fought over the tallow. That's it;
there wasn't enough suet to leave a good taste in each one's mouth. From
the looks of the ground, there might have been fifty wolves."

The boy reasoned well. Experience is a great school. The brothers awoke
to the fact that in the best laid plans of mice and men the unforeseen
is ever present. Their sponsors could only lay down the general rule,
and the exceptions threw no foreshadows. No one could foresee that the
grip of winter would concentrate and bring down on the little herd the
hungry, roving wolf packs.

"Take out the herd to-day," said Dell, "and let me break out more
running water. I'll take these basins in and refill them, make new ones,
and to-night we'll put out fifty baits."

The cattle were pointed up the new trail to the southern divide. Joel
took the herd, and Dell searched the creek for other shallows tributary
to the corral. Three more were found within easy distance, when the
troughs were gathered with fork and sled, and taken home to be refilled.
It was Dell Wells's busy day. Cunning and caution were his helpers;
slighting nothing, ever crafty on the side of safety, he cut, bored, and
charred new basins, to double the original number. After loading, for
fear of any human taint, he dipped the troughs in water and laid them in
the shade to freeze. A second trip with the sled was required to
transport the basins up to the corral, the day's work being barely
finished in time for him to assist in penning the herd.

"How many baits have you?" was Joel's hail.

"Sixty odd."

"You'll need them. Three separate wolf packs lay in sight all the
afternoon. Several times they crept up within one hundred yards of the
cattle. One band numbered upwards of twenty."

"Let them come," defiantly said Dell. "The banquet is spread.
Everything's done, except to drag the carcass, and I didn't want to do
that until after the cattle were corraled."

The last detail of the day was to build a little fire, which would die
out within an hour after darkness. It would allow the cattle time to bed
down and the packs to gather. As usual, it was not the intention of the
boys to return, and as they mounted their horses to leave, all the
welled-up savage in Dell seemed to burst forth.

"Welcome, Mr. Wolf, welcome," said he, with mimic sarcasm and a gesture
which swept the plain. "I've worked like a dog all day and the feast is
ready. Mrs. Wolf, will you have a hackberry plate, or do you prefer the
scent of cottonwood? You'll find the tender, juicy kidney suet in the
ash platters. Each table seats sixteen, with fresh water right at hand.
Now, have pallets and enjoy yourselves. Make a night of it. Eat, drink,
and be merry, for to-morrow your pelts are mine."

"Don't count your chickens too soon," urged Joel.

"To-morrow you're mine!" repeated Dell, ignoring all advice. "I'll
carpet the dug-out with your hides, or sell them to a tin peddler."

"You counted before they were hatched this morning," admonished his
brother. "You're only entitled to one guess."

"Unless they got enough to sicken them last night," answered Dell with
emphasis, "nothing short of range count will satisfy me."

A night of conjecture brought a morning with results. Breakfast was
forgotten, saddles were dispensed with, while the horses, as they
covered the mile at a gallop, seemed to catch the frenzy of expectation.
Dell led the way, ignoring all counsel, until Dog-toe, on rounding a
curve, shied at a dead wolf in the trail, almost unhorsing his rider.

"There's one!" shouted Dell, as he regained his poise. "I'll point them
out and you count. There's another! There's two more!"

It was a ghastly revel. Like sheaves in a harvest field, dead wolves lay
around every open water. Some barely turned from the creek and fell,
others struggled for a moment, while a few blindly wandered away for
short distances. The poison had worked to a nicety; when the victims
were collected, by actual count they numbered twenty-eight. It was a
victory to justify shouting, but the gruesome sight awed the brothers
into silence. Hunger had driven the enemy to their own death, and the
triumph of the moment at least touched one sensitive heart.

"This is more than we bargained for," remarked Joel in a subdued voice,
after surveying the ravages of poison.

"Our task is to hold these cattle," replied Dell. "We're soldiering this
winter, and our one duty is to hold the fort. What would Mr. Paul say if
we let the wolves kill our cattle?"

After breakfast Joel again led the herd south for the day, leaving Dell
at the corral. An examination of the basins was made, revealing the fact
that every trace of the poisoned suet had been licked out of the
holders. Of a necessity, no truce with the wolf became the slogan of the
present campaign. No mushy sentiment was admissible - the fighting was
not over, and the powder must be kept dry. The troughs were accordingly
sledded into the corral, where any taint from the cattle would further
disarm suspicion, and left for future use.

The taking of so many pelts looked like an impossible task for a boy.
But Dell recalled, among the many experiences with which Forrest, when a
cripple, regaled his nurses, was the skinning of winter-killed cattle
with a team. The same principle applied in pelting a wolf, where by very
little aid of a knife, about the head and legs, a horse could do the
work of a dozen men. The corral fence afforded the ready snubbing-post,
Dog-toe could pull his own weight on a rope from a saddle pommel, and
theory, when reduced to the practical, is a welcome auxiliary. The head
once bared, the carcass was snubbed to the centre gate post, when a
gentle pull from a saddle horse, aided by a few strokes of a knife, a
second pull, and the pelt was perfectly taken. It required steady
mounting and dismounting, a gentle, easy pull, a few inches or a foot,
and with the patience of a butcher's son, Dog-toe earned his corn and
his master a bale of peltry.

Evening brought report of further annoyance of wolves. New packs had
evidently joined forces with the remnants of the day before, as there
was neither reduction in numbers nor lessening in approach or attitude.

"Ours are the only cattle between the Republican River in Nebraska and
the Smoky River in this State," said Joel, in explanation. "Rabbits and
other rodents are at home under this sleet, and what is there to live
on but stock? You have to hold the cattle under the closest possible
herd to avoid attack."

"That will made the fighting all the better," gloatingly declared Dell.
"Dog-toe and I are in the fur business. Let the wolves lick the bones of
their brethren to-night, and to-morrow I'll spread another banquet."

The few days' moderation in the weather brought a heavy snowfall that
night. Fortunately the herd had enjoyed two days' grazing, but every
additional storm had a tendency to weaken the cattle, until it appeared
an open question whether they would fall a prey to the wolves or succumb
to the elements. A week of cruel winter followed the local storm, during
which three head of cattle, cripples which had not fully recuperated, in
the daily march to the divides fell in the struggle for sustenance and
fed the wintry scavengers. It was a repetition of the age-old struggle
for existence - the clash between the forces of good and evil, with the
wolf in the ascendant.

The first night which would admit of open water, thirty-one wolves fell
in the grip of poison. It was give and take thereafter, not an eye for
an eye, but in a ratio of ten to one. The dug-out looked like a
trapper's cave, carpeted with peltry, while every trace of sentiment
for the enemy, in the wintry trial which followed, died out in the
hearts of the boys.

Week after week passed, with the elements allied with the wolves against
the life of the herd. On the other hand, a sleepless vigilance and
sullen resolve on the part of the besieged, aided by fire and poison,
alone held the fighting line. To see their cattle fall to feed the
wolves, helpless to relieve, was a bitter cup to the struggling boys.

A single incident broke the monotony of the daily grind. One morning
near the end of the fifth week, when the boys rode to the corral at an
early hour, in order to learn the result of poison, a light kill of
wolves lay in sight around the open water. While they were attempting to
make a rough count of the dead from horseback, a wolf, supposed to be
poisoned, sprang fully six feet into the air, snapping left and right
before falling to the ground. Nothing but the agility of Rowdy saved
himself or rider, who was nearly unhorsed, from being maimed or killed
from the vicious, instant assault.

The brothers withdrew to a point of safety. Joel was blanched to the
color of the snow, his horse trembled in every muscle, but Dell shook
out his rope.

"Hold on," urged Joel, gasping for breath. "Hold on. That's a mad wolf,
or else it's dying."

"He's poisoned," replied Dell. "See how he lays his head back on his
flank. It's the griping of the poison. Half of them die in just that
position. I'm going to rope and drag him to death."

But the crunching of the horse's feet in the snow aroused the victim,
and he again sprang wildly upward, snapping as before, and revealing
fangs that bespoke danger. Struggling to its feet, the wolf ran
aimlessly in a circle, gradually enlarging until it struck a strand of
wire in the corral fence, the rebound of which threw the animal flat,
when it again curled its head backward and lay quiet.

"Rope it," said Joel firmly, shaking out his own lasso. "If it gets into
that corral it will kill a dozen cattle. That I've got a live horse
under me this minute is because that wolf missed Rowdy's neck by a
hand-breadth."

The trampled condition of the snow around the corral favored approach.
Dell made a long but perfect throw, the wolf springing as the rope
settled, closing with one foot through the loop. The rope was cautiously
wrapped to the pommel, could be freed in an instant, and whirling
Dog-toe, his rider reined the horse out over the lane leading to the
herd's feeding ground to the south. The first quarter of a mile was an
indistinct blur, out of which a horse might be seen, then a boy, or a
wolf arose on wings and soared for an instant. Suddenly the horse
doubled back over the lane, and as his rider shot past Joel, a fire of
requests was vaguely heard, regarding "a noose that had settled foul,"
of "a rope that was being gnawed" and a general inability to strangle
a wolf.

Joel saw the situation in an instant. The rope had tightened around the
wolf's chest, leaving its breathing unaffected, while a few effectual
snaps of those terrible teeth would sever any lasso. Shaking out a loop
in his own rope, as Dell circled back over the other trail, Rowdy
carried his rider within easy casting distance, the lasso hissed through
the air, settled true, when two cow-horses threw their weight against
each other, and the wolf's neck was broken as easily as a rotten thread.

"A little of this goes a long way with me," said Joel from the safety of
his saddle.

"Oh, it's fine practice," protested Dell, as he dismounted and kicked
the dead wolf. "Did you notice my throw? If it was an inch, it was
thirty feet!"

In its severity, the winter of 1885-86 stands alone in range cattle
history. It came rather early, but proved to be the pivotal trial in the
lives of Dell and Joel Wells. Six weeks, plus three days, after the
worst blizzard in the history of the range industry, the siege was
lifted and the Beaver valley groaned in her gladness. Sleet cracks ran
for miles, every pool in the creek threw off its icy gorge, and the
plain again smiled within her own limits. Had the brothers been thorough
plainsmen, they could have foretold the coming thaw, as three days
before its harbingers reached them every lurking wolf, not from fear of
poison, but instinctive of open country elsewhere, forsook the Beaver,
not to return the remainder of the winter.

"That's another time you counted the chickens too soon," said Joel to
his brother, when the usual number of baits failed to bring down a wolf.

"Very good," replied Dell. "The way accounts stand, we lost twelve
cattle against one hundred and eighteen pelts taken. I'll play that game
all winter."




CHAPTER XII

A WINTER DRIFT


The month of March was the last intrenchment in the wintry siege. If it
could be weathered, victory would crown the first good fight of the
boys, rewarding their courage in the present struggle and fortifying
against future ones. The brothers had cast their lot with the plains,
the occupation had almost forced itself on them, and having tasted the
spice of battle, they buckled on their armor and rode forth. Without
struggle or contest, the worthy pleasures of life lose their nectar.

The general thaw came as a welcome relief. The cattle had gradually
weakened, a round dozen had fallen in sacrifice to the elements, and
steps must be taken to recuperate the herd.

"We must loose-herd hereafter," said Joel, rejoicing in the thawing
weather. "A few warm days and the corral will get miry. Unless the
wolves return, we'll not pen the cattle again."

Dell was in high feather. "The winter's over," said he. "Listen to the
creek talking to itself. No, we'll not have to corral the herd any
longer. Wasn't we lucky not to have any more cattle winter-killed! Every
day during the last month I felt that another week of winter would take
half the herd. It was good fighting, and I feel like shouting."

"It was the long distance between the corral and the divides that
weakened the cattle," said Joel. "Hereafter we'll give them all the
range they need and only put them under close-herd at night. There may
be squally weather yet, but little danger of a general storm. After this
thaw, farmers on the Solomon will begin their spring ploughing."

A fortnight of fine weather followed. The herd was given almost absolute
freedom, scattering for miles during the day, and only thrown together
at nightfall. Even then, as the cattle grazed entirely by day, a mile
square of dry slope was considered compact enough for the night. The
extra horses, which had ranged for the winter around Hackberry Grove,
were seen only occasionally and their condition noted. The winter had
haired them like llamas, the sleet had worked no hardship, as a horse
paws to the grass, and any concern for the outside saddle stock
was needless.

The promise of spring almost disarmed the boys. Dell was anxious to
know the value of the bales of peltry, and constantly urged his brother
for permission to ride to the railroad and inquire.

"What's your hurry?" was Joel's rejoinder. "I haven't shouted yet. I'm
not sure that we're out of the woods. Let's win for sure first."

"But we ought to write to Mr. Paul and Mr. Quince," urged the younger
boy, by way of a double excuse. "There may be a letter from them at
Grinnell now. Let's write to our friends in Texas and tell them that
we've won the fight. The spring's here."

"You can go to the station later," replied Joel. "The fur will keep, and
we may have quite a spell of winter yet. Don't you remember the old
weather proverb, of March coming in like a lion and going out like a
lamb? This one came in like a lamb, and we had better keep an eye on it
for fear it goes out like a lion. You can go to the railroad in April."

There was wisdom in Joel's random advice. As yet there was no response
in the earth to the sun's warmth. The grass was timid and refused to
come forth, and only a few foolish crows had reached the shrub and
willow along the Beaver, while the absence of other signs of spring
carried a warning that the wintry elements might yet arise and roar
like a young lion.

The one advantage of the passing days was the general improvement in the
herd. The instinct of the cattle led them to the buffalo grass, which
grew on the slopes and divides, and with three weeks of fair weather and
full freedom the herd as a whole rounded into form, reflecting its
tenacity of life and the able handling of its owners.

Within ten days of the close of the month, the weakened lines of
intrenchment were again assaulted. The herd was grazing westward, along
the first divide south of the Beaver, when a squall struck near the
middle of the afternoon. It came without warning, and found the cattle
scattered to the limits of loose herding, but under the eyes of two
alert horsemen. Their mounts responded to the task, circling the herd on
different sides, but before it could be thrown into mobile form and
pointed into the Beaver valley, a swirl of soft snow enveloped horses
and riders, cattle and landscape. The herd turned its back to the storm,
and took up the steady, sullen march of a winter drift. Cut off from the
corral by fully five miles, the emergency of the hour must be met, and
the brothers rode to dispute the progress of the drifting cattle.

"Where can we turn them?" timidly inquired Dell.

"Unless the range of sand dunes catch us," replied Joel, "nothing short
of the brakes of the Prairie Dog will check the cattle. We're out until
this storm spends its force."

"Let's beat for the sand hills, then. They lay to our right, and the
wolves are gone."

"The storm is from the northwest. If it holds from that quarter, we'll
miss the sand dunes by several miles. Then it becomes a question of
horseflesh."

"If we miss the sand hills, I'll go back and get a pack horse and
overtake you to-morrow. It isn't cold, and Dog-toe can face the storm."

"That's our one hope," admitted Joel. "We've brought these cattle
through a hard winter and now we mustn't lose them in a spring squall."

The wind blew a gale. Ten minutes after the storm struck and the cattle
turned to drift with it, all knowledge of the quarter of the compass was
lost. It was a reasonable allowance that the storm would hold a true
course until its wrath was spent, and relying on that slender thread,
the boys attempted to veer the herd for the sand hills. By nature cattle
are none too gregarious, as only under fear will they flock compactly,
and the danger of splitting the herd into wandering contingents must be
avoided. On the march which lay before it, its compactness must be
maintained, and to turn half the herd into the sand dunes and let the
remainder wander adrift was out of the question.

"We'll have to try out the temper of the herd," said Joel. "The cattle
are thin, have lost their tallow, and this wind seems to be cutting them
to the quick. There's no use in turning the lead unless the swing cattle


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Online LibraryAndy AdamsWells Brothers The Young Cattle Kings → online text (page 9 of 17)